Interview with John Waters about his new book Role Models

John Waters
John Waters
John Waters photograph © Greg Gorman

How lucky we are that John Waters grew up with such a strong obsessive streak and that he has befriended his neuroses and harnessed the little buggers’ energy to shine a beacon of light on the margins, the misfits, the fringe, the forgotten, and on the seedy underbelly of contemporary culture and, invariably, shows us sweetness. The filmmaker, writer, and visual artist has espoused a desire to be considered a “filth elder.” To borrow his words about Tennessee Williams, John Waters is “a bad influence… in the best sense of the word.” Okay, that’s actually stealing but also leaving behind a handwritten IOU, nay, “We Owe You” thank you note for keeping us in touch with our inner juvenile delinquent.

For the last forty years he has worn his iconic pencil-thin moustache and for the last twenty he has been a disciple of fashion designer Rei Kawakubo and dressed in a look he calls “disaster at the dry cleaners.” Through his many many artistic contributions (like being among the handful of filmmakers who can take credit for the theatrical “midnight movie” phenomenon and his imperfectly perfect films like Polyester, Hairspray, and Pecker) we have come to know his passion, charisma, and his distinctive firebrand sense of humor. I mistakenly presumed that the title Pecker character (played by Edward Furlong and who snapped his way into the New York art world) was a nod to Waters’ personal history. Yet in his DVD commentary, he noted that Pecker’s candy addict sister, Little Chrissy, was where Waters really showed his hand (he can’t keep confectionery at home). But I also couldn’t help wonder if John Waters is a man who plays his cards a little close to his chest. Well, they are now all on the table with the release of his new book Role Models [Farrar, Straus and Giroux].

John Waters Role Models Book Jacket
Jacket illustration by Eric Hanson

Role Models is a compendium of the people who’ve had a profound influence on John Waters, the person. As someone who has long viewed Mr. Waters as an American original and who has great regard for his keen insight, wit, storytelling, and iconoclasm, I must honestly say that I was unprepared for this book’s emotional largess, its naked sincerity, the tender eloquence, and the grand literary leap of Waters’ prose. Of course Role Models is fucking hilarious, but it is also, in turn, shocking, earnest, scary, and bizarrely wholesome as Waters weaves the reader through a tapestry of low and high culture, colorful characters, and cautionary tales. Waters is a massive bookworm and in praising a certain title he writes, “Sometimes when I want to feel smarter, I sneak up on this volume on my bookshelf and kiss it.” I may never get to first base with Role Models but a grateful, knowing wink is assured some day. I have not been able to shake this most incredible read.

I spoke to Mr. Waters on June 1st, the day Role Models was published. Unbeknownst to me, the phone number I had was for the front desk at the Hotel Palomar in Philadelphia. For a split-second I was surprised that an assistant or handler didn’t pick-up and then I wondered if Mr. Waters was prone to using cheeky pseudonyms. “Could I have Mr. Water’s room?” I asked flatly. And the woman on the other end replied, “Let me connect you.” After a mental high-five and two rings there was that voice, “Hello?” I pre-apologized about the likelihood of mispronouncing some names and Mr. Waters chimed, “Oh believe me, I know that. I had to read the whole book for the audio version and I realized I couldn’t pronounce some of them.” And with that we were under way.

Steve Birmingham: Since Role Models is dedicated to Van Smith, I was wondering if you might share a special memory or story?

John Waters: Now, this book is not about my movies really. I wrote about my movies in Shock Value [: A Tasteful Book About Bad Taste] but this book has little to do with my movies. But Van Smith, who died several years ago, was a very important part of my movies. In the beginning, he did all the costumes and all the make-up for the films up to, I would say, Hairspray or even Cry Baby, I think. And Van certainly did the costumes up until the very end for every one of the movies. And he invented Divine’s look and he was incredibly important to the success of those movies, so I just wanted to pay tribute to him because Van was a role model in a way. He had a difficult life himself. He struggled with many issues. And I think he would’ve identified with practically every person that I wrote about in Role Models.

SB: When scriptwriting, I believe you’ve said that you start out with way too many sub-plots and characters. Could you talk about your process for narrowing down the field of candidates for inclusion in this book?

JW: Well, when I started to think up “role models,” obviously I did have way more than I included in the book but I wanted to make sure that I hadn’t already written about them before or used them in my This Filthy World show or talked about them in any of my screenplay books. I had to really police all my past work to make sure that I wasn’t doubling up. I did write a little bit about Zorro in Crackpot [: The Obsessions of John Waters] but I certainly hadn’t met her daughter or heard [Zorro’s] whole story; about the lesbian stripper in Baltimore that was a big influence on me. This book was my life told through how other people affected it and I guess if you didn’t end up in it, I couldn’t really think of the way to write how it affected my life even though I liked the person very much.

SB: You reference the Baltimore accent a couple times. I’m a little embarrassed to say that I don’t have an ear for it yet. Could you describe it or give some representative examples?

JW: Well, just watch all my early films— everybody has one. I think when I imitate the narrator Mr. Ray, who was a hair-weave salesman in Baltimore [and who voiced his own radio ads], and I imitate his voice in the narration of Pink Flamingos— that is definitely a Baltimore accent. Every receptionist in town answers the phone, “One moment”  [Sounds like “wonmimmitt”]. And they would say, “How now brown cow?” [Unable to accurately capture Mr. Waters’ inflection which he kindly voiced, but this phrase is smushed together and he did confirm that that was indeed the phrase]. You get used to it. It’s kind of hideous. I probably have one myself; you’re probably hearing one right now. [Mr. Waters replied, “Good” and chuckled when I said that I didn’t detect one. I wish I had explained at the time that he has always just sounded like “John Waters” to me.]

SB: [I didn’t intend to print this but I made an aside to Mr. Waters about how much empathy I had when he wrote in his book that his tape recorder didn’t work (even though he had tested earlier that morning) just as he was sitting down to interview Johnny Mathis, one of his idols, at Mr. Mathis’ home.]

JW…I just started to make notes and luckily I’m a fast writer and I had a lot of my [research] notes there, so it wasn’t so difficult. Yeah, that was really the first interview I did for the book and that was because I had one of those rotten [inaudible] little recorders that says “voice recognition” so it stops supposedly when no one is speaking which is the worst kind for interviews because it cuts off the beginning when you start talking again… I’m so bad; I don’t even know how to plug something in. It just makes me want to cry. I am mechanically challenged. I never even figured out how to tape a VHS off television. I’m really bad at that kind of stuff. I mean I do have computers and all, but thank god for my assistants that have more patience than I do in that area.

SB: Johnny Mathis said he “loved” Liberace (one of his heroes) because “he used his money.” Could you elaborate on the context of that quote?

JW: What he meant by “using his money” was that he spent it! And he used his money to spend it on things that became part of his career. I mean Liberace’s house was as much of a part of his career as his piano playing was. So I think Johnny Mathis looked at him, the way I did, in amazement— how somebody could live this life with apparent dead seriousness.

SB: Since you interviewed Patty McCormack who played one of your childhood obsessions, the murderous cherub Rhoda Penmark in The Bad Seed, I recently watched the film since I hadn’t seen it in years and I was struck by how well it holds up and I was amazed that Warner Brothers ended it with a title card which read in part, “May we ask that you do not divulge the unusual climax of the story. Thank you.” Do you recall people honoring that request during its release?

JW: You have to remember that that was almost like a William Castle marketing thing because Alfred Hitchcock with Psycho, the big gimmick was he put a clock out front and it said that was the next show time and they wouldn’t let people in until the next show started. Now today, that’s regular for every movie but in the old days no one called the theater and asked what time it started. People just went to the movies and they went in the middle and stayed until the next part, which is amazing to me! If I miss one second of a movie I hate it and I’ll have to leave and come back to see the next time it starts. So it was probably another marketing [gimmick]. In the Broadway play, that The Bad Seed is based on, Rhoda goes unpunished at the end. But in Hollywood with all the rules they had, they couldn’t allow her to not be punished. So she gets struck by lightning in the end. That was what they were asking you not to reveal.

SB: I hope it’s not rude to ask but could you explain why you like Alvin and the Chipmunks better than the Beatles?

JW: Well, to me the Beatles kind of ruined rock-n-roll. When I was young they ended Motown and all those great singers were out of business. And the Chipmunks are the closest to Johnny Mathis. They get more and more famous. The last Chipmunk movie, The Squeakquel, made a half-billion dollars. The Chipmunks are bigger and bigger and bigger and there are now four generations of people that remember them. The very first thing was the song “Witch Doctor,” the one that went “ooh eeh ooh ahah ting tang walla walla bing bang,” that was the first one and they’ve gone on and have become such an industry that in the ’80s when people did cocaine and they talked real fast— I was hoping they would all turn into Chips [sic] and start speaking like that. To me, the Chipmunks have lasted longer than the Beatles. Now I like the Beatles, are you kidding me? But still what I am saying is: I like the Chipmunks more. I’d rather meet Alvin than Paul McCartney.

SB: I think it was amazingly sweet of your mother to drive you to hang outside of Martick’s [“a bar known (at the time) for its bohemian customers”] when you were underage. Is your mother just that cool or was there a certain amount of pleading involved?

JW: I think my mother said, “I don’t remember doing that,” but she most certainly did because I remember it. She knew I couldn’t get in the bar. She knew I wasn’t twenty-one and that the owner knew that and she also knew my friend Pat Moran worked there. But it is amazing when I look back on it. She said, “Maybe you’ll find people here that you can get along with” and I did and they ended up in my movies. I think she was frightened; just didn’t know what to do. And what to do with a child like me at that time was not in the Dr. Spock book. It didn’t say what to do. She was hoping that I would find other people that maybe were into art or something like that. But I look back on it and yeah; it was an incredibly loving and risky thing to do.

SB: You wrote that, “Tennessee Williams wasn’t a gay cliché, so I had the confidence to try to not be one myself. Gay was not enough.” What was this “other” or “additional” aspect? Can you elaborate on that statement please?

JW: Certainly, yes. The gay world still has too many rules for me; I don’t fit in there either. I like bohemia and bohemia is gay, straight, black, white, rich, poor— it’s everybody mixed together. It’s people that don’t fit in any world and that’s always been my favorite world.  I’m all for gay marriage of course. Anybody that’s against it, I wouldn’t vote for them. But I certainly don’t want to mimic a heterosexual tradition. I hate going to weddings. I’ve never had fun at a wedding in my life. People have the right to marry a tree if they want. I don’t understand how people say the sanctity of heterosexual marriage when Larry King can get married seven times. I’m for Larry King being able to get married a thousand times if he wants to. My parents had a beautiful marriage that lasted over fifty years and I never saw them fight. They had a great marriage. I believe that people can have good marriages but I’m just saying it kind of was more fun to me when gay people were outlaws or at least got angry and had wit and didn’t want to be like everybody else.

SB: With that, you would’ve been around twenty-seven years old in 1973 when the American Psychiatric Association declassified homosexuality as a mental disorder.

JW: That’s right.

SB: Do you recall that proclamation and…

JW: I don’t remember that being like a day that anyone celebrated [chuckles].  I was on LSD, I didn’t know. By that time I had already been in gay magazines. People [ask] “When did you come out?” I never came out, that seems so corny to me. I just thought everybody knew it but people didn’t! Mink Stole told me she didn’t even know I was gay when I lived with her for a while. I guess we had very separate bedrooms.

SB: Do you have mixed feelings that you had to be twenty-seven years old, lived that long, for them to deem that you’re not a mental disorder?

JW: I wanted to be mental. [Laughing] I wanted to have mental disorders! Certainly, that was a good thing and I agree with their… I was reading an article today about there’s no such thing as nervous breakdowns anymore. They don’t use that term. That’s a great term! Certainly I was glad that they made a right decision to do that but, however, in a way, we were never trying to embrace mental health. That was a big theme in my early pictures. We were doing the opposite. Something that everybody in Role Models does is they turn what society thinks is a disadvantage into a style and hopefully win something even if it’s just peace of mind. And so that was very important to me. We were never trying to fit in. We never wanted to be what society thought was mentally healthy.

SB: In the book you say, “I was secretly delighted that my comic sex act [teabagging] had crossed over to real life.” How do you feel about Sarah Palin and Rand Paul’s ilk taking it as their de facto moniker?

JW: Oh, I don’t care. They don’t use it any more; I think they found out what it was. I wanted to see Levi [Johnston] teabagging. That’s my interest in the Sarah Palin story.

SB: Were you prepared for the journey and emotional weight with writing about Z [aka Lady Zorro whom Waters describes as “so butch, so scary, so Johnny Cash. No actual stripping for her at that point; she just came out nude and snarled at her fans”] and her daughter Eileen, and [Baltimore barkeep] Esther Martin’s kids? And now with the book’s physical publication, are you still wrestling with the question you posed, “Can I go too far in being inspired by someone else’s good “bad mother”? Can other moms’ militant lunacy ever be funny, even if their ideals are based in raw naked pathology?”

JW: Well, both the families of Esther Martin and Zorro’s daughter, Eileen, read the book and liked the chapter very very much. And even Eileen has used it to so-call “come out” about her past to certain people that knew her that she didn’t know [sic].  I think both [families] realized that by writing about it and talking to me about their kind of growing up— that the authorities would’ve taken the children away, that the kids turned out to be the best work the parents ever did (even if the parents were completely insane and very lacking in parent skills). I think that they had an interesting life. They had a radical life. They’re much easier to understand other peoples’ problems. At the same time, I think they delighted that someone noticed. And I think I treated both mothers with great respect even though what I bring out is hardly what you’d want your mother to be. However, the kids turned out great! So I think that as long as you know that your mother loves you (even if the mother is insane) it can turn out to be okay.

SB: I was really struck by the poignancy of your interview giving Eileen some closure and the kindness of strangers thread with Esther visiting the smokehounds in the hospital or VA and burying them no less! This passage is so hauntingly elegant or vice versa: “Ah yes. The mythical suitcases of the dead bums whose souls Esther owned. Up in the attic, still there in the family house where Joy continues to live. A kind of bum burial ground for Esther’s subjects. A carnival of lost souls that shines in the dark of a forgotten harsh kindness.” May I ask if you are allowing yourself to be flat out proud of your prose and this tome?

JW: Well certainly I’m proud of the book. You know, I like to write. It’s always been my favorite thing. All I do is read but then I relax. So, yes, I’m very proud of the book. And those suitcases in her attic; what she did was she enabled bums, really. Only bums were allowed in her bar and she got their disability checks. Yet she buried them. She gave them the money to drink in her own bar. She was kind of their psychiatrist— it was a harsh kindness. And when they died, she inherited their stuff. It was nothing almost but she got their suitcases. So “up in the attic with those suitcases” and they were haunting to me, that image, that graveyard of forgotten people only Esther remembered.

SB: The way you didn’t want to hear the details of the Baltimore blow-roast banana act, the “Outsider Porn” chapter was a bit graphic for me. I was not familiar with auteurs Bobby Garcia and David Hurles (nor the genres they each created). But then I got over myself and was struck by your sincerity in giving them “academic respect.”

JW: They’re even giving David Hurles a show that opens at the Marianne Boesky Gallery in New York this Friday of his work [June 4 – June 25, 2010].

SB: Wow. I was just going to tack on that you can talk film at least as much as Scorsese. Why are the real pioneers more apt to be denied recognition and/or end up living in a pigpen?

JW: Well, they’re pioneers of a genre of film that is unwritten about, that is unknown to most people, and the people that know it certainly don’t feel that it’s part of academia. So I’m saying that there are some pornographers who are artists even though they don’t know it themselves and they don’t do it for art. They do it as an outsider artist does— they have no choice but to do it. They do it for themselves. And I find that kind of interesting. What’s going to happen to these peoples’ papers? What’s going to happen to their work? David Hurles has two art books out of his work so I think he’s a little more remembered. Bobby doesn’t even live in the squat or whatever it was he lived in with all the wild animals, I don’t know where Bobby is today. I hope that he can be rediscovered enough to get some equipment and to continue because it was amazing— he only did portraits of naked heterosexual Marines. But yet at the height of his career, there were traffic jams of horny Marines outside his apartment waiting to come in to get beer money. That says something about this great country and capitalism, doesn’t it?

SB: You’ve had Stiv Bators, Iggy Pop, and Debbie Harry in your films. I know you like punk rock jukeboxes and I also saw a recent photo of you online with the lovely Beth Ditto. How did you get turned on to punk rock, and/or when did it really get its hooks into you, and may I also please shake you down for a Stiv or Iggy anecdote?

JW: It’s funny; I just met John Lydon, too, who was of course Johnny Rotten. I first saw the Sex Pistols when I was in London (before they were even known, as far as I knew). Someone took me to this deep blue-collar suburbia and I don’t even remember where it was outside of London when the Sex Pistols were playing with Jordan and all the punk rock girls, [Soo] Catwoman, and all those other people whose imagery you so know today. It was unbelievable! I had never seen pogo dancing. I had never seen punk and no one had seen it. I don’t even know if they had a word for it yet, and it was unbelievable! The electricity was the same way it must’ve been when somebody saw Elvis for the first time. Things were radically going to change. So that was just incredibly important to me. Stiv Bators was a gentleman. I guess the only anecdote I can think of is when he died (when he had a concussion and went to sleep); his girlfriend told me that after the funeral she snorted his ashes. I guess that was a punk rock thing to do. And Iggy Pop? I just wish Iggy could come with Beth Ditto and we could do a USO tour. He could wrestle bin Laden-look-alikes while Beth Ditto sang. And then I would come out and do Vera Lynn songs.

SB: [Laughing] That’s awesome! The “Pope of Trash” title that William S. Burroughs bestowed upon you is well known. Had you two met before he said that?

JW: Yes. I knew William and I think James Carroll also had a lot to do with that, who sort of redid William’s career to the punk rock world. That was a really brilliant thing to do; it gave William’s career twenty more years. I did know William and he was kind and nice and incredibly funny. There’s a good new documentary about him that just came out which I’m also in and which you should see [William S. Burroughs: A Man Within directed by Jonathan “Yony” Leyser].

SB: You wrote, “Get on the fashion nerves of your peers, not your parents.” I hope every teen in the country eventually gets that message. I don’t have a question but I love that mantra and I know that you “save” lives the way Tennessee Williams saved yours a couple times. Could you make a statement to the kids about individuality and conformity and not necessarily just in the context of fashion?

JW: If you’re lucky enough to know what you want to do when you’re a kid, don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it because I’m living proof you can. And at the same way, don’t think somebody is just going to come knocking on your door or give it to you.  You got to go claw your way to find it. Everybody wants to be a film director. If it were easy, everybody in the world would do that. So if you want to be a writer (whatever you want to do in the arts), it helps to be a little damaged. You’re not going to fit in in high school but once you get out, you can take any kind of experience you’ve had and use it and turn it into some kind of art even if it’s art that other people hate. So don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do something and keep asking because a “No” is free.

SB: Your chapter on Leslie Van Houten makes an impassioned case for her parole and cites her repeated psychiatric reports of rehabilitation, her deeply expressed remorse, and the fact that she was not sentenced to life without parole. Do you think that she will be paroled within this decade? And also when did you first feel the need to express your own mea culpa for the “jokey, smart-ass” association in your earlier films?

JW: Well I certainly hope so with Leslie’s parole but I don’t know. It’s a very very tough question. She met a madman when she was seventeen; she’s been in jail forty years. She believes she should have gone to jail, everybody did. I believe if it hadn’t been for Manson that wouldn’t have happened [the murders of Leno and Rosemary LaBianca] but she doesn’t let herself off that easily. She said, “It’s my fault for turning him into a cult leader. A cult leader can’t be a leader without followers.” When I knew Leslie for twenty-some years, I never wrote about it. And once I decided that I was doing this book, I asked her if I could write about her rehabilitation and she said yes. So I had saved everything from the very beginning and I realized that I did treat Manson in a punk rock way, the same way Marilyn Manson became Marilyn Manson. It was an image, it was a joke but I wasn’t really thinking about all the horrible things that happened to the victims’ families. The families of the kids that became Manson’s family were a different kind of victim but still a victim to me too. So I guess I got serious about it. There are no jokes in the chapter about Leslie Van Houten.

Author: Steve Birmingham

Steve showed up at DogCanyon HQ, unannounced, with byline tearsheets and a stack of LPs by a band called “Cows” spilling out from under his arms, and just let himself in. After proceeding to mock the office music library, he got down to tossing out all our old pens that didn’t really work and refilled the printer with paper like a l’il superchamp. He’s been showing up ever since. We suspect he’s homeless. This Minneapolis native has been based in Austin, Texas, for most of the last decade and holds a B.A. from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He has long written about stand-up comedy, rock-n-roll, and film for underground publications too dank and mildewy to name but also for the Austin Chronicle, the Minneapolis entertainment weeklies and Pulse of the Twin Cities, Chunklet magazine and he contributed to their tomes Chunklet Presents: The Overrated Book, The Rock Bible: Unholy Scripture for Fans & Bands, and the forthcoming The Big Book of Indie Cred. Steve was also the founding music editor of the Squealer magazine, which even the filthy Boomer rag Rolling Stone noted as “influential.” Steve is an atheist (but not evangelical) and yet he loves gospel music and was saved by punk rock-n-roll. He is nonetheless a totally tolerant cat (except to gluten, he’s learned, but he envisions a far more fiery demise than being taken down by a small cadre of Teddy Grahams). Ooh, bad boy alert! We kid.

10 thoughts on “Interview with John Waters about his new book Role Models”

  1. Briilliant interview! Now I have to read "Role Models". (And John Waters has never been a favorite author.)

  2. I really like John Waters. This interview definitely strengthened my respect for the man. If you haven't already, watch This Film is Not Yet Rated. John has a great interview in there, too.

  3. Thank you so much for this interview. At last someone bothered to do a little research and not ask the same old questions. This was really, really good (yet I wish you had pushed a little to find out who was left out from the book).

    1. Wow. Yeah. I wonder what kind of skeletons Mr. Waters has in his closet. I bet he has pissed off a bunch of people, if only for the reason that he beats to march of his own drummer (or vice versa). Mr. Waters seems to me like someone who has come up against a lot of road blocks in his career and life, but seems quite adept at hurdling them. Some names from that list would be interesting!

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